5 Steps to a Better CARS Score

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is one of the most well-known entrance exams in all of higher education. It is known for many things: difficulty, length, bizarre scoring systems, and the breadth of subjects covered – everything from basic human psychology to nucleophilic substitution reactions to electrical circuits to the life cycle of plants are fair game on this test. The test is designed to look for several basic abilities and aptitudes of medical school applicants; among these are problem-solving skills, basic grasp of scientific knowledge, and understanding of human relationships. One aptitude that the MCAT particularly focuses on is the ability to quickly synthesize large amounts of information and data and make decisions based on the conclusions; this skill is extremely valuable for physicians in medical practice, but also important for students to succeed in medical school. This skill is tested on each section of the MCAT, but is also almost the sole skill tested on one section in particular: Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS), formerly known as Verbal Reasoning.
The verbal reasoning section is perhaps the most unique part of the MCAT, since it has nothing explicitly to do with basic science or foundational knowledge like the rest of the test. For this reason, it also tends to be one of the most feared sections of the test; many students feel like it is impossible to study or prepare for, or feel that score improvements in this area are impossible. While it is certainly difficult to study for in the traditional sense – there are no lists of high-yield facts, equations to memorize or diagrams to draw – it is also possible to prepare for the verbal reasoning section and to improve your score in this area. There are many resources available, with somewhat differing pieces of advice, but here are five general principles to get you started.
1. Understand the Section
CARS is the last of four sections of the new MCAT. It consists of 53 questions and is 90 minutes in length. There are 9 passages, which are usually around 600 words each; this means you will have about 10 minutes to read each passage and answer 5-6 related questions. Some passages will be “harder” than others, but much of this depends on interest and personal preference as well. Roughly 50% of the passages are on the humanities (such as art and literature) and 50% are from social sciences (such as economics and psychology).
This section of the MCAT is not like the Reading section of the ACT, despite some simplistic comparisons. The reading portion of the ACT basically tests for comprehension: it assesses whether or not the test taker can read quickly, accurately, and either locate or remember significant information that is explicitly stated in the passage. By contrast, CARS requires the test taker to go a step further; it tests for the ability to synthesize, interpret, infer, and make logical conclusions based on the passage. Note that this still requires the ability to read quickly, accurately, and locate or remember facts from the reading. Also note that there may be one or two questions of the first type on the CARS section of the MCAT; these should be some of the easier questions, since they just require reading thoroughly. (If you struggle with this type of question, consider starting with some ACT reading practice tests. You can usually get an ACT prep book fairly cheap or find them at a library for free. Do a few of these until you’ve mastered this idea.)
2. Read, Read, Read
This is a fairly simple idea and somewhat obvious given the nature of this section. Since CARS is composed of blocks of text, it makes sense to practice reading to improve comprehension and speed. This can save valuable time on the test, and will contribute to not making you feel rushed (see #3 below). Many people brush off this idea; they simply believe “I’m just a slow reader” and think they can’t improve in this area. Fortunately, everyone can improve – it just takes practice! Try reading 15-30 minutes a day. Focus on just reading thoroughly and really understanding what you are reading. After this, work on consciously reading a little faster – not uncomfortably so, but enough that you notice a difference. Doing this for even a month is usually enough to improve your speed significantly. (Note: there are many methods and exercises to improve reading speed, such as this one; most experts agree that you should only try a new method if you feel comfortable with it and have ample time to practice.)
Since the topics covered in the CARS passages are often obscure and unpredictable, practice reading everything – novels, critical essays, research papers, short stories, and newspaper articles. Two sources I found personally helpful: The Economist and The New Yorker. These tend to simulate the type of writing that appears on the CARS section, and many of their articles can be found free online. Many students also find it helpful to join a reading group or collaborate with other students; this can help hone the skills of critical analysis even further.
3. Stay Confident and Relaxed
This principle is largely related to reading as mentioned in #2. If you feel rushed or are constantly afraid you are going to run out of time, it will impair your ability to read thoroughly and your capacity to think critically about each question. I suggest two approaches to help with this. The first has already been mentioned: practice. Read more and practice reading faster so that time becomes less of an issue. The second approach is somewhat counterintuitive, but I found it very helpful: relax. Move smoothly and confidently through each passage; try to avoid actively rushing. If you work at a consistent pace, you will stay calmer and be able to read and think better. This will ultimately help your time and score, because you won’t be distracted or worried. Practice this until you can do a full test section at a “comfortable” pace and still finish on time.
4. General Test Taking Strategies
Two general test-taking strategies can really help on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section. The first is the basic idea that on a multiple choice test, ruling out incorrect answers significantly increases your odds of answering correctly. While this is always true, I have found it especially helpful on this section. Taken a step further, this principle is often called the Golden Rule, and it works because these questions tend to have 1 or 2 answers that are explicitly wrong, based on (usually) one word. These can be found by honing in on a detail that is clearly contradicted by the passage. This will usually leave 2 choices that sound good. The principle here is to pick the “less wrong” answer. This means that you should look for the answer choice with no word or detail remotely contradicted by the passage. Often the ”distractor” answers will be mostly right and look great at first glance, except for one simple word or idea that is clearly wrong. If you can get comfortable identifying this, you will have a much better chance of answering the question correctly.
Another “general” test taking strategy that can be especially helpful on this section is this principle: Don’t go back if you can help it. Try to answer all of the questions about a given passage confidently before moving on to the next passage. Because each passage is somewhat dense and requires thorough reading and good comprehension, your chances of getting it right the first time, while you are looking closely at and are most immediately familiar with the passage in question, are much higher than if you come back after reading other passages. While this may be useful for double-checking (i.e., coming back later might let you check over your choices with a broader view), you shouldn’t rely upon it; instead, practice answering carefully and confidently the first time through.
5. Practice tests
This has been implied throughout the other points, but it is absolutely essential to take practice tests. If CARS is a section you struggle specifically with, take practice passages and questions on just this section. Generally, though, you should take full practice tests that mimic the real MCAT. Regardless, taking actual questions is the only way to assess your strengths and weaknesses and actually put your strategies into action. It will also make you familiar with the test and its pacing so you can be relaxed and confident on the big day. Perhaps most importantly, practice full tests so that you don’t become fatigued on test day. This has bearing on all sections of the MCAT, but especially on CARS, since it is the last section and thus will likely be the most challenging. Practice full tests so that you are confident you can perform well even with mental fatigue.